Syrian forces launch Homs blitz
Damascus - Syrian forces on Tuesday blitzed the flashpoint city of Homs and opened fire to disperse daring protesters in the capital, monitors said, as the Red Cross sought ways to deliver aid to afflicted areas.
The escalation comes as Russia, a key ally of President Bashar Assad's regime, said it will boycott an international conference in Tunis this week aimed at seeking political change in Syria, while China refused to commit.
It also comes ahead of the weekend referendum on a new constitution that could end nearly five decades of rule by Assad's Baath party, in a bid by Damascus to fend off pressure for regime change.
Despite a plea by activists on Monday to allow women and children to flee Homs's besieged neighbourhood Baba Amr, troop reinforcements were sent to the outskirts of the restive city, which residents say has been assaulted by regime forces for 18 straight days.
Activists fear they are preparing to storm its defiant neighbourhoods.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a military convoy of 56 vehicles, including tanks and personnel carriers, were seen on Tuesday travelling on the highway from Damascus, near the town of Qarah, 70km south of Homs.
The Britain-based monitoring group said 16 people, including three children, died in "intensive shelling" that targeted Baba Amr on Tuesday, with the Khaldiyeh and Karm al-Zaytoun districts also blasted.
Another seven civilians, including a child, were reportedly killed by gunfire in other parts of the country.
Homs-based activist Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, who had earlier voiced fears of an imminent ground attack against Baba Amr area, said that "large reinforcements were heading to Homs".
"We counted at least 150 shells crashing in Baba Amr within two hours this morning. We gave up counting afterwards," he said.
Omar Shaker, another activist in Baba Amr, said the neighbourhood had "no electricity, nor fuel", and that "snipers have hit water tanks", rendering the situation "bad beyond imagination".
AFP was not able to verify the reported death toll nor the reports of shelling as foreign reporters are given only limited access within the country.
Meanwhile, businessman Mahmud Ramadan, whose brother Ahmed is a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, was shot dead on Monday in Aleppo, according to the Observatory and SANA state news agency.
Although SANA said Ramadan was killed by a "terrorist group", the Observatory said that he was pro-regime, an accusation that his brother dismissed as "defamation", in a telephone interview with AFP.
In the capital, the Observatory reported that Syrian security forces opened fire overnight to disperse a demonstration, as daring protests spread in the stronghold of President Bashar Assad's regime.
Security forces opened fire at demonstrators who took to the streets in the capital's Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighbourhood, it said.
Protesters during the night also blocked the roads leading to Baramkeh Square in the centre of the capital, according to Mohammed Shami, a spokesperson for activists in Damascus province.
He said demonstrators used "burning materials" to shut the roads, triggering a security alert that saw "heavily armed forces" deployed in the area within minutes.
Secular Syrian groups have called for more demonstrations in the capital on Tuesday, outside parliament, against the draft constitution being put to a referendum on Sunday.
The Red Cross said earlier that it was in talks with the Syrian authorities and rebels to halt the violence so that it can deliver aid.
"The International Committee of the Red Cross is exploring several possibilities for delivering urgently needed humanitarian aid," said ICRC spokesperson Bijan Farnoudi on Monday.
And although top US military officer, General Martin Dempsey, said over the weekend that it was "premature" to arm the country's opposition movement, top Republican Senator John McCain called again for the outgunned rebels to be supplied with weapons, speaking to reporters in Cairo.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, said Syria was increasingly under pressure.
A Friends of Syria meeting, due this week in Tunisia, will "demonstrate that Assad's regime is increasingly isolated and that the brave Syrian people need our support and solidarity," she said on a visit to Mexico.
Russia snubs meet
The meeting "will send a clear message to Russia, China and others who are still unsure about how to handle the increasing violence but are up until now, unfortunately, making the wrong choices", she added.
Russia announced on Tuesday that it will not take part in the Tunisia meeting because it was being convened "for the purpose of supporting one side against another in an internal conflict", according to a foreign ministry statement.
Two Iranian warships, which Tehran's state media said on Monday had docked in the Mediterranean port of Tartus to help "train the Syrian navy", were passing through the Suez Canal on Tuesday on their way back to Iran, a canal authorities source said.
Iran is a key ally of Assad, and accuses Israel and the West of seeking to destabilise Syria.